Children should be encouraged to exercise from a young age to prevent developing heart disease risk as teenagers, international experts said today.
A study on 389 youngsters found that exercise levels in childhood had a big effect on the risk of getting heart disease in later life.
Youngsters who developed metabolic syndrome in adolescence were six times more likely to have had low aerobic fitness when they were younger, it found.
Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of factors – such as obesity, abnormal fat levels in the blood, high blood pressure and high cholesterol – that predict how likely it is somebody will develop heart disease or stroke.
Researchers in the US measured activity rates, aerobic fitness, body mass index (BMI), blood pressure and blood fat content when the children were aged seven to 10.
They then compared these with results from when the youngsters were aged 14 to 17.
At the end of the study period, almost half the teenagers had developed at least one characteristic of metabolic syndrome.
Overall, 18 teenagers had developed three or more characteristics of metabolic syndrome.
This group also had higher body mass index levels and cholesterol as well as lower levels of fitness and activity.
Even as seven-year-olds, they had fitness levels well below the US national average.
Writing in the journal Dynamic Medicine, the researchers said: “Low levels of childhood physical activity and aerobic fitness are associated with the presence of the metabolic syndrome in adolescents.
“Thus, efforts need to begin early in childhood to increase exercise.”
Robert McMurray and colleagues at the University of North Carolina said they had shown for the first time that metabolic syndrome in teenagers was influenced by levels of fitness and physical activity in childhood.
“Many metabolic syndrome factors develop at an early age, before adolescence,” he said.
“Being able to determine which youth are at high metabolic syndrome risk is thus beneficial when considering methods of prevention.
“Children today live a very sedentary life and are prone to obesity. This is the first study to examine the importance of childhood fitness levels on your metabolism as a teenager.
“Previously we didn’t know if low fitness levels were an influence. It’s obvious now that there is a link and this is something which we need to pay attention to by encouraging our kids to keep fit, or suffer the consequences later in life.”